Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that Ford has thrown the kitchen sink at the new Focus ST. The most recent version had fallen flat, forgotten in a landscape dominated by better-resolved GTIs, Cupras and a certain letter N.
Its dynamic problems were twofold: it was too lairy, tending to torque-steer pretty wildly if clobbered out of a bend, and it didn’t have a limited-slip differential to control the resulting wheelspin.
If you were more restrained and taught yourself to be better; to drive up to the chassis’ limits rather than beyond them, it flowed fairly well, but then it lacked the fizzy character that hot hatchbacks should possess. However you drove the petrol car it just wasn’t quite right; the diesel option actually felt like a more cohesive package.
Back in the days of five-cylinder, fuel-guzzling heroics, during the 2000s, the ST was a charismatic, charming and always respected choice. It was heavy at the front and was skittled by plenty of rivals when it came to handling, but that wasn’t the point. It was a simple recipe, served up a feast of fun and it worked. So should its successor, but against the old five-pot car it seemed as flat as that half-drunk bottle of Coke you left in your boot and forgot about.
Ford has obviously taken this fall from grace quite personally. The simple blue-collar approach has been canned and there’s a hitherto unimaginable shift towards complex technology. The new 276bhp car will have an electronically-controlled limited-slip diff that works pre-emptively based on factors like grip and steering angle, selectable drive modes for the first time, active dampers and an anti-lag system derived from the GT supercar. Blimey.
There’s rev-matching if you’re the lazy type that doesn’t want to learn how to do it manually, launch control, new Steering Torque Disturbance Reduction software for the electro-mechanical power steering and a bespoke variant of Michelin’s Pilot Sport 4S tyre. Bigger stoppers now provide four times the fade resistance of the old ST’s setup, Ford says. The 0-62mph sprint will be done in under six seconds, it adds. It all seems rather… serious.
Now, we have to note that some of these technologies are optional: rev-matching, launch control, Track mode and red brake calipers (+10hp?) all come with the Performance Pack. We don’t have prices as yet, though speculation puts the launch model – the flagship ST-3 – at something like £28,000, which is £2000 more than the last one began its life at.
With the Performance Pack it’ll be well over £30,000, but that’s still fair dinkum for a class where the Honda Civic Type R is £31,000-£33,000, the VW Golf GTI also starts at £31,000 and the Hyundai i30 N Performance costs £29,495. So far, so reasonable for Ford? Maybe, even if we’ve just been reminded what a relative steal that Hyundai is…
The problem here is a buzzing little fly of a thought that snuck into my ear upon reading the press release. The Focus ST, right back as far as the ST170, has always been a straightforward example of brilliant chassis setup without frills. It was a chassis tuned for fun with a precise front end, an active rear one and an engine that placed an emphasis on driver skill. Ford’s chassis masters proved that suspension needed no special tricks to achieve the right balance of ride and control.
Shifting ethos entirely and introducing so much technology is as blatant an admission of ‘failure’ as the ST’s engineers could make over the old car. Worryingly, it’s also an admission that they’d lost confidence in their own ability to recreate the magic without using extra technology. As a result the new car may be brilliant, but it won’t necessarily feel like an ST has historically felt. Some of that old-school, Ford-specific character will inevitably fade as the car aligns more closely to the chassis spec of its rivals.
There’s another thing. If £28,000 is correct, it’s in line with the market. But how much cheaper would it have been if there were no adjustable modes, a generic mechanical differential and no anti-lag? If the dampers had only one – ideal – setting? If the tyres were off-the-shelf items? It could be thousands less.
Don’t tell me all the gadgets are necessary. There’s a very strong argument for the differential after the shenanigans of the old car, but beyond that the bulging bag of gimmicks are – or should be – superfluous for an ST.
Ford has already rattled the market’s coconuts with this badge. The last two Fiesta STs went on sale with a simple but outstanding dynamic package that blew every rival out of the water despite the car costing way less than most alternatives. It was a formula that proved (twice) that a hot Ford was a winner and a bargain. That’s what ST should stand for. A long, winding drive may eventually leave me raving about the spicy new Focus, but for now I fear that it might have become… derivative.